skip to content

SP12: Latin American Culture

Piedra del Sol in Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico D.F.

This paper is available for the academic year 2024-25.


This paper covers the culture of the Spanish Colony in the Americas, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and that of post-Independence Latin America up to around 1973.  The two sections, Colonial Culture and Post-Independence Culture, are organized by topics which allow for wide comparative reading across regions, genres and authors (including artists and cinema directors). In the examination you will be asked to answer three questions, at least one from each section.  Over the centuries the area has produced many major poets, which are fundamental to a grasp of the culture and which form an important component of the paper.



Section A: Colonial Latin America


  • Appropriating the Pre-Columbian

This section explores how creole Mexican elites of the late colonial and early republican periods appropriated Aztec history and made it a key component in the construction of a protonational and national identity. In the late seventeenth century, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, in his Teatro de virtudes políticas (1680), presented the ancient Mexica rulers as political models for the new viceroy, reaffirming a local identity but also creating a political genealogy that linked the pre-Columbian world to Spanish imperial power. A century later, the Creole Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavigero, in his Historia antigua de México (1780-81), wrote an encyclopaedic history of the Mexica and challenged the historiographical tradition by claiming pre-Columbian material culture as the basis of Mexican historiography.

In the nineteenth century, the anonymous novel Xicoténcatl (1826), which narrates the wars and subsequent alliance between Tlaxcalans and Spaniards before the fall of Tenochtitlan, and the work of artists who reproduced pre-Columbian art in their paintings, drew on the pre-Hispanic past at a time when national identity and what it meant to be Mexican were being defined. By analysing the ways in which these authors appropriated the pre-Columbian, students will question the extent to which their exaltation of the Mexica implied an incompatibility of this glorious past with contemporary indigenous societies, and the role of these narratives in shaping our current notions of indigeneity and mestizaje. 


Section B: Post-Independence Latin America

  • Avant-garde and mid twentieth-century poetry

The emblematic poetry of the Avant garde and mid twentieth century reacted against modernismo but built on its conquests. The teeming –isms of the early twentieth century European avant-garde movements were taken up by Latin Americans, who made them their own and redefined their ideological and poetic aims. The Chilean Vicente Huidobro and the Argentinians Oliverio Girondo and Jorge Luis Borges wrote important manifestos and poetry of exciting and challenging novelty and formal experimentation. The Peruvian César Vallejo radically took apart and reassembled the Spanish language in Trilce, expressing spiritual anguish which leaves the poetic form in pieces. Like Pablo Neruda, Vallejo went on to write politically committed poetry in the context of the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. The great Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s poetry is best approached in his Libertad bajo palabra.

  • The City and the Countryside (la novela de la tierra, cultural nationalism and the return to roots)

The City and the Countryside offers germane clusters of texts which can be studied as separate groupings or comparatively.  The best-known text of the gauchesca, the verse narrative spun around the figure of the River Plate gaucho or cowboy is Hernandez’s Martín Fierro (1872, 79). The conflicts of early Argentina and Uruguay echo and dialogue with founding notions from Sarmiento’s Facundo: civilización y barbarie (1845) and echo in the rewritings of Jorge Luis Borges nearly a century later. The 1920s texts by José Eustasio Rivera, Ricardo Güiraldes, Rómulo Gallegos and others often referred to as the narrativa de la tierra and novela la selva, and set in the jungles and plains of South America, address the effects of modernization and nation construction on traditional rural life.  Mexican narratives of the 1940s and 50s by Juan Rulfo, José Revueltas, Agustín Yáñez and others combine modernist literary technique with a depiction of traditional rural communities threatened or destroyed by the violence of the Revolution and Cristero Wars and the modernizing campaigns of the State.

  • Narrative and experiments in form (Rulfo, the ‘Boom’, Cabrera Infante)

This topic covers the extraordinary flowering of narrative innovation, often highly self-conscious, developing from the late 1940s and gaining international recognition for Latin American fiction in the 1960s ‘Boom’ and beyond. Juan Carlos Onetti was a pioneer with his La vida breve, then came the landmark Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo.  The Argentinian Julio Cortázar, inspired by French surrealism, Keats and Poe, wrote Rayuela (1963), the iconic ‘anti-novel’ of the Boom, which is often compared with Carlos Fuentes’ Cambio de piel and the later Zona sagrada, which drew on cinema, early post-modern “camp” aesthetics, and structuralist interrogations of myth and its functions. Alejo Carpentier, Fuentes and others wrote historical novels of great structural and conceptual complexity. Book-ending the topic comes the monumental Tres tristes tigres, a tongue-twisting novel that tries to capture the frenetic energy of pre-Revolutionary Havana, its orality and popular musical cultures, as well as its parodic emptying out of serious “high” literature.

  • The Short Story (Arreola, Monterroso, Dávila and Ocampo)

The Short Story has a long and distinguished tradition in Latin America, with local roots in Palma’s Tradiciones from the 1870s and the stories of Darío and chronicles of Gutiérrez Nájera around the turn of the century.  The Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga combined the fantastic of Poe and vivid descriptions of the harsh and dangerous nature of the continent to produce his foundational collections between 1917 and 1926.  The Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges combined the fantastic and detective traditions with disconcerting games with intellectual enigmas and questions of authorhood and language to produce some of the most influential works of Western literature such as Ficciones (1944).  Julio Cortázar drew on his inspiration from 1952 with Bestiario to write a no less fascinating but more existentially based series of collections.  From Lugones and Felisberto Hernández to Arreola and Monterroso, the tradition has great depth and vitality. In 2023-2024 we will be looking at a selection of works by Juan José Arreola (often referred to as the “Mexican” Borges), by Augusto Monterroso (who combines elements of the fantastic with social and political satire, and is famed for having written the shortest story ever!), and by two major women writers (recently “rediscovered”) who pushed the fantastic genre in new directions: the Argentinian Silvina Ocampo and the Mexican Amparo Dávila.

  • Articulations of Identity (women’s writing, poesía negristanarrativa negra, indigenismo)

Writing on specifically feminine identity, sexuality and language, as well as on race and ethnicity, in poetry and prose, has a rich history in Latin America.  Through the twentieth century a powerful line of poetry and thought can be drawn between the very different figures of Gabriel Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, Rosario Castellanos and Alejandra Pizarnik.  The poesía negrista of Nicolás Guillén, Palés Matos, Ballagas and others emerged in the 1920s and 30s and explored Afro-Caribbean rhythms, physicality and culture within an anti-colonialist and often humorous discourse.  Indigenista texts, from the late nineteenth century onwards, have also articulated questions of voice and agency, mestizaje and structural injustice and violence mainly in Andean and Mexican societies. In 2023-2024, the lectures will focus on two female poets, Alfonsina Storni and Alejandra Pizarnik and black writing from C19th and C20th Cuba and Colombia (including the first ever slave-autobiography in Spanish, Manzano’s Autobiografía de un esclavo and the popular poetry of Colombian Candelario Obeso, a nineteenth-century “precursor” of later “poesía negrista”). Study of indigeneity will be focussed on the early independence “appropriations” of the colonial past (see above), although students are also free to engage with indigenista and neo-indigenista texts by José María Arguedas, Ciro Alegría, Rosario Castellanos, Miguel Ángel Asturias and others (although not those texts covered on SP5).

  • Visualizing America (painting, muralism, photography)

This comparative topic explores representational strategies and innovation in the arts in relation to portrayals of identity, gender, ethnicity, landscape, history, modernity, collectivity, revolution and popular culture. It centres on visual culture from the 30s onwards, with a particular focus on the way in which it was shaped by the legacies of historical avant-garde movements and their ramifications in a transatlantic and transcultural sense. Through lectures focused on the British-born surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who settled in México in the 1930’s, and the Afro-Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, whose post-colonial dialogue with the European avant-garde dates from the same time, we explore how issues regarding identity were reframed by artists ready to critically question Western representation. We will address the aesthetic strategies that make up the dreamworlds created by Mexican-British painter Leonora Carrington, situating them as part of the larger transformative journey of Surrealism through the work of several prominent visual artists working in Mexico (Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo) and Argentina (Xul Solar, Leonor Fini). Also in close dialogue with surrealism, as well with the rise of Caribbean ethnography and post-colonial thought in the region, we will explore how Wifredo Lam’s paintings and etchings – which he saw as being part of “an act of mental decolonisation” – allow us to critically question the legacy of colonial representations, opening the path for a liberated post-colonial imaginary. Adopting an interdisciplinary and comparative lens, this topic will allow students to map out the vibrant exchanges and the rich variety of artistic practices and visual experiments that characterised a period imbued with the tensions arising from accelerated modernisation and geopolitical change in Latin America and the rest of the world.

  • Modernismo: Darío and others *

Spanish American modernismo, which flourished from around 1885 to the beginning of the First World War, saw a radical renewal of writing in Spanish, in poetry and prose, unrivalled since the Golden Age of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Opening up to Western literature and modernity, especially French romanticism and symbolism, Spanish American writing became far more cosmopolitan and, paradoxically, more American and original.  The towering figure is the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío with his seminal collections Prosas profanas and Cantos de vida y esperanza, prose poems and short stories, but there is a bewildering richness of figures, from the Cuban poet, essayist and patriot José Martí and the witty chronicles and poetry of the Mexican Gutiérrez Nájera to the sardonic poems and fascinating novel, Sobremesa, of the Colombian José Asunción Silva.

            *  the topic will not be lectured on 2023-2024, but there will be a question on it in the exam and students may wish to study it with their supervisor. 

The topics allow a detailed engagement with individual authors and texts in a comparative framework.  Some of the topics contain regional themes and diverse genres and groupings of texts.  There are no set texts as such, but major authors and their works are given in the detailed reading lists below. Questions are designed to allow both detailed focus and a wider-ranging approach.


Preparatory reading: 
  • Rolena Adorno, Colonial Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2011)
  • Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria and Enrique Pupo Walker, eds, The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, especially vol. 2 (1996)
  • Gerald Martin, Journey though the Labyrinth (1989)
  • Carlos Fuentes, La nueva novela hispanoamericana (1969)
  • Efrain Kristal, ed.,  The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel (2005)
  • Philip Swanson, ed., Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction (1990)
  • Adam Sharman, Tradition and Modernity in Spanish American Literature (2006)
Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught through a standard course of 20 lectures and 8 supervisions (6 for Optional Dissertation Students).


From 2023-2024, the examination will consist of TWO parts:

1) Lent term Coursework Essay

Answer ONE question. 

The questions released will relate to SECTION A: “Appropriating the Pre-Columbian.”

You should make reference to TWO OR MORE works in your answer. 

You should write no more than 1,800 words.

Essays will be due for submission at the start of the Easter term (the precise date and time to be announced in due course.)


2) Easter Exam (3hr timed online)

Answer TWO questions from SECTION B: “Post-Independence Latin American Culture.”

You must answer each question with reference to TWO OR MORE works. 

For each answer write no more than 1,500 words. 

Candidates for this paper may not draw substantially on material from their dissertations or material which they have used or intend to use in another scheduled paper. Candidates may not draw substantially on the same material in more than one question on the same paper. 


Course Contacts: 
Dr Rory O'Bryen (Paper Coordinator)